I wrote this piece for my final project as a part of the Literature of the American Landscape January Term.
I kept getting the sense that I was supposed to have motion sickness. I anticipated nausea as the train moved and stopped, moved and stopped. But I felt all too comfortable gazing out of the window, blasting Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 2-3,” and scribbling notes about all of the people I saw outside of my window. I knew I looked like the angsty teenager at the beginning of a bad movie, and I didn’t mind it one bit.
Throughout the trip, I found myself trying to relate to all of the people I came across. I hugged my knees and kept my nose to the window of my roomette, wondering about the distant figures that lived in the passing towns. I needed to know whether they hated bananas, what kinds of deodorant they used, and why their worst first dates had gone so badly. I needed to know what they thought about the train. Did they see it and wonder what the passengers thought of their towns? Were they inherently self conscious or proud?
As the trip moved forward, and we spent more time in mountainous “No Service” zones, I became far more interested in the passengers on train. Were they content in traveling alone, and were they were moving towards something bigger? Were they running away from something? What is the best train story they could think of off the tops of their heads?
My questions resulted in a series of interviews focused mainly on travel and the concept of place. Below is a series of profiles on the people I spoke with.
Jeff and Mildred
Jeff and Mildred have been a part of for Amtrak for 27 and 23 years, respectively. They have both worked almost every position on the train, and favor their current roles the most. Having worked half a dozen routes throughout their careers, they are thrilled to be on the California Zephyr. It was both of their first choices; the employees bid routes based on seniority.
Mildred heard about her first open position for Amtrak through Job Corps. She was stuck without a plan after graduating high school. “I took an aptitude test in New York, passed, and went straight to Chicago to get on the first train,” she explains. Jeff saw a TV ad. Amtrak needed cooks, and he had just finished serving in the navy as a cook. He had experience, so getting the job was relatively easy.
But the job itself is always a challenge. “We work 18 hour shifts, and we’re always dealing with people,” Jeff says matter-of-factly. If you work for Amtrak, you’re undoubtedly a “people person.” Mildred explains that “these are service-oriented positions. You gotta have customer service embedded in you.” Most of all: “you need to have a natural feel for helping people.” She remembers the names of almost every passenger that she has served food to during that six-day-period. Over the years, she has collected a box of memorabilia. She has collected letters and drawings given to her by her favorite passengers.
Both Jeff and Mildred work two weeks out of the month. When they’re traveling, they are family. Jeff, who works as a service attendant in a sleeper car, spends his free time with Mildred and the other service attendants in the dining car. “We look out for each other while we’re here,” Jeff shares. The crew is more than just a makeshift family. In fact, Mildred’s husband works on the train, and interrupts the interview to brag about his wife at the end of almost every question.
Their strongest recommendation about train travel: don’t do it if you’re in a rush. “There are delays. You need a window of cushion time if you’re trying to make an event,” Jeff advises. Mildred stresses that this is a leisurely way to travel; it’s also her favorite. “I notice something different every time. There’s a lot of time to think and the scenery is always a little bit different,” she says. Do they use trains to travel with their families? “Of course,” Jeff chuckles, as if the answer is obvious. “It’s free.”
Ken and Jerry
Ken and Jerry are both eighty-five years old. They live near each other in their hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. They’ve been friends for thirty or forty years – they cannot agree on the exact number. But they agree on their favorite beers (they sip their Miller Lites at the same speed). They agree that their friend Robert, who is sitting a few feet away, needs to speak up. But most of all, they agree that their annual trip to the ski resort near Glacier National Park is their favorite time of year.
“We met skiing,” Ken shares. “Almost every year since a bunch of friends from La Crosse meet for five days at the resort,” Jerry chimes in. They spend the next few minutes trying to think of all the golf tournaments they’ve road tripped to. Robert is the only one who remembers what year anything happened, and he makes sure to correct the other two when they’re wrong. He says they’ve been taking the train “for a very long time. Since it was the normal way to move around.”
They take advantage of every mode of transportation for their trips together, but the train is by far their favorite. “It’s nice and peaceful,” Jerry says. Except “you don’t have the priority on the road – you have to wait for the important freight trains.” But it’s worth it for them in their pursuit to avoid all the “bullshit” of air travel.
“You have to enjoy the wilderness,” Jerry advises me. “The landscape of North Dakota is like the steps of Egypt.” When I ask what he means, he says “just look at the animals.” Ken does not question the comparison, only takes another swig of beer. They seem to understand each other perfectly.
The two friends make sure to lend me some advice about traveling. First, Ken tells me to take everything in, and enjoy every moment of it. Jerry has something much more concrete to offer: “Never leave your bag alone!” Ken starts laughing, and explains that Jerry never takes his own advice – he is going to the ski resort empty handed.
Jay and Teresa
Train travel is not just for groups of friends seeking extended getaways. In fact, it seems to be the perfect mode of transportation for those vacationing alone. Teresa from Michigan explains: “You have your personal space in your roomette, but if you want to be social you have the opportunity.” Jay is also from Michigan, but he hasn’t met Teresa yet. “It’s just me, so I’m used to doing this alone.”
Teresa lived in California for twenty-three years, but she moved back to Michigan a few years ago to take care of her elderly mother. “I go back every year to visit friends and get away from the cold.” She too lives alone, but considers her pets to be her children. She keeps plenty busy with outdoor sports, and is teaching her first Tai Chi class.
Jay takes the same trip every year during his two-week vacation from work. He takes the California Zephyr and makes three stops, always to meet a distant cousin for a casual family reunion. But starting next year, he hopes to diversify his destinations. “Turning sixty-six,” he says with a proud, toothy smile. “ I plan to retire, get social security benefits, and travel more.”
This is Teresa’s first time using a train for long distance travel. She didn’t want to take an airplane because “air travel is so unpredictable. There’s the least bit of bad weather anywhere in the country and all of the airports have delays.” In the end, the cost of traveling by train did not cost much more than the price of a plane ticket and some gas money.
But this time has been invaluable for her. She knits as we speak, talking excitedly about all of the books she has managed to read so far. “This my time to un-think. I don’t worry about home or work – this is time for decompression.” When it gets a bit too quiet in her roomette, she joins some of her across-the-train neighbors in the observation deck. “Everyone is so sociable. They all give little histories of where they come from and where they’re going.”
Jay says he never feels lonely while traveling, but that’s probably because he isn’t looking for alone time. His drawl seems shy and apprehensive at first, but he warms up quickly. “It’s important to get out and see the country, make it to places you’ve never been, meet people and hear their stories.” He has been riding trains since he was a kid – unlike Teresa, he is a dedicated old-timer.
Teresa tosses her quaffed hair behind her shoulder, and wonders aloud if her friends might join her next time. She figures it would be a good bonding experience. “We could all learn something, kind of like your school is doing,” she suggests. But Jay is perfectly content with his stack of old National Geographic magazines. He offers his booth: “I don’t get lonely. But if anyone else wants company, they can come say ‘hey’ to me!”
At first glance, you wouldn’t peg Laura as the settling down type. She shamelessly sings “Falling Slowly” in the observation deck, jotting down notes when something doesn’t sound quite right on her guitar. She has two face piercings, and intricate tattoos peaks out from her T-Shirt – from her left collarbone down to her elbow.
But right off the bat, she assures me: “I’m 30, so I’m reaching the point in my life where it’s about time to find a man and start a family.” I wish I could tell her I had a guy in mind, but I don’t know a soul in Kalispell, Montana.
Laura admits that these awkward exchanges happen regularly. Growing up, her family moved from place to place, and she was always the new kid in town. “I’m socially awkward, but I always looked for other misfits. Being a misfit kind of shaped me.” At an early age she learned how to blend in with new crowds of people.
But as Laura grew older, she took to traveling as a means of self-discovery. “Traveling helped me be exposed to a lot of people, and find who I was among many different cultures.” She does not blend in with the crowd with her guitar case, Sharpie-covered Mandala, and sheet music. But she doesn’t have to worry about that: “I don’t really hide anymore. I actually love the train because I can talk to everybody.” She seems to make conversation with almost every other passenger in the back half of the car.
Laura takes this train regularly. She has become familiar with the distance of the rolling hills and the intimacy of the passing towns. More importantly, it is the cheapest way to travel from Kalispell, Montana to Red Wing, Minnesota, where her dad and grandparents live. She’s on her way home now, but this was an important visit. “My father has a benign brain tumor, so we took him to get radiation. It’s supposed to just zap it.” She is currently writing a song about the hospital visit – she says it’s surprisingly upbeat.
In the middle of our talk, I find myself having an in-depth conversation with Laura about the meaning of “home.” I tell her where I’m from, and share what the word means to me. She sees it differently, insisting: “You can have multiple homes at once. I have a different home for each stage of my life.” She explains that different places feel familiar to different, younger parts of herself.
“I’m not sure where the next home will be. I do think Kalispell is a good place to start a family,” Laura says, looking out the window as we make a quick stop in a small town. I point out a red brick house in the distance. She agrees there is something solemn about the structure. “It’s interesting because this place will never be my home,” she decides, “but I’m seeing all these other people’s homes and I’ll never even meet them.” On a second thought, “I guess that might not be true. You never know where life will take you.” She wonders aloud if her future husband lives in a house like that one.